Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A MOVIE OF ITS TIME


The buzz in Hollywood is that THE KING’S SPEECH is not only now a lock for best picture but it is going to sweep the ceremony as well. (Watch out Christian Bale, here comes Geoffrey Rush!) This possibility is driving some critics crazy.  Not only because it defies the critics’ overwhelming choice of THE SOCIAL NETWORK as best film of the year, but because they think that somehow the British import is an unworthy choice. (This, despite the fact that it got a 95% positive rating by the critics’ consensus at rottentomatoes.com.) Critics will tell you that THE KING'S SPEECH is not a film of its time. It's a film that could have been made 30 years ago. An old-fashioned, classically crafted movie that has little to say about our modern world.


These critics laud THE SOCIAL NETWORK for being so of the moment, with its themes about social media and disconnection in the modern computer age. This, this, they will tell you, is the definitive film of our time. Or at least this year. Maybe so. But to criticize THE KING'S SPEECH as quaint film making or paint it negatively as a movie that could have been made 30 years ago, seems not only mean-spirited but utterly wrong. (How do they justify that with a film that received 95% positive reviews?) To the naysayers it just doesn't reflect the edginess of where we are now in either film narrative or contemporary society. I'd argue that any movie about a leader in politics probably is relevant to today's world in someway, particularly when one like THE KING'S SPEECH is about the importance of the leader communicating properly.

Those same critics also breathlessly gripe about all the other mistakes the Academy has made in the past by picking less "modern" choices as HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY over CITIZEN KANE in 1941, ORDINARY PEOPLE over RAGING BULL in 1980, and CRASH over BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN in 2005. I could make a case for each of those Oscar winning best movies as films of their time as well as of course, worthwhile, artistic choices but I’m particularly galled to see ORDINARY PEOPLE get knocked around. It is more than an excellent film, it is a film that was as much a movie of its time as THE SOCIAL NETWORK is today. And certainly not a quaint TV movie by today's standards, as some critics will tell you.

For his first movie to direct, actor Robert Redford chose Alvin Sargent's screenplay of Judith Guest’s 1976 award-winning book about the disintegration of an American family. You may remember that the story of ORDINARY PEOPLE concerns the inability of the Jarrett family to deal with the death of Buck, the favored older son, who perished in a boating accident. Conrad (TIMOTHY HUTTON), the younger teen son, who was with Buck at the time but did not drown, has survivor’s guilt and it’s led him to try to take his own life. Beth (MARY TYLER MOORE), the perfect Lake Forest housewife, has compartmentalized her feelings and tries desperately to act as if nothing is out of place in their lives. And Calvin (DONALD SUTHERLAND), the father, a high-powered Chicago attorney, cannot seem to find the strength to hold his crumbling family together. 



The film is about survival. Conrad, with the help of a Highland Park mensch of a psychiatrist (JUDD HIRSCH), comes to realize that he is a survivor, not only for evading his own demise in the boat accident, but also for conquering his fears at home and at school. Beth is not as fortunate. She ends up leaving the family, unable to face the pain and her indifference to Conrad. And Calvin finally finds the strength to not only hold what he can together but also to reject Beth, who is holding everyone back by not facing reality. The family survives, albeit with two 'casualties.'

Now perhaps that sounds like a TV movie to you. And indeed, regular TV and pay cable have been covering that territory very well for decades now. But they didn't always. True, under the lens of today’s world, ORDINARY PEOPLE seems a little smaller in its tightly focused story on a suburban family, especially when compared to the epic, ginormous self-destruction at play in the bio of boxer Jake LaMotta in RAGING BULL. And Scorsese's film techniques are certainly more edgy and attention-getting too than those in ORDINARY PEOPLE. His rich, black and white photography; the stylized use of slow-motion in the action sequences; and of course, the trademark Scorsese rapid-fire editing are all attributes that make RAGING BULL look contemporary even by today's film making standards. That’s certainly how the critics see Scorsese's masterpiece in retrospect.  But observed within the context of the 70's, the themes and edginess in ORDINARY PEOPLE were definitely there. And quite a breakthrough in dealing head-on with the changing American family. And it was certainly as much of its time as THE SOCIAL NETWORK is of the new millennium.

Nobody bats an eye today at the idea of someone seeing a psychologist on a continuing basis, but in those days, it was considered something highly irregular. Especially for teenagers. In fact, one of the problems that starts the end of Beth and Calvin’s marriage is the fact that Beth wants to hide the fact that Conrad is seeing a therapist, whereas Calvin feels that honesty is the best policy. The vivid exploration of psychotherapy in regard to a 'normal' American family was quite revelatory at the time. And further more, the film's frank discussion of suicide, mental institutions, masturbation as mental release, family favoritism, all within the bounds of an ordinary suburban family, were quite shocking at the time. Now it's every other hour on daytime TV, but it wasn't in 1980. Perhaps that is why this Oscar winner is not as heralded today. Its themes have become quite common. But they were not then. At the time this subject material was daring, even blasphemous in its way. (Mary Tyler Moore, America's sweetheart, played the villain!) The movie was far away from the idealized world of the American family and caused quite a stir. ORDINARY PEOPLE took big risks and yet presented them with a sensitivity and intelligence that struck a chord with audiences as well as with the Academy.

Twenty years after ORDINARY PEOPLE, Oscar was still recognizing films that commented so topically about the psychological woes of the suburban family by awarding AMERICAN BEAUTY its top honor. And isn’t the inclusion of THE KIDS ARE ALRIGHT and WINTER’S BONE in this year’s best picture nominees indicative of the continuing power of up-to-the-moment stories about contemporary families, just like ORDINARY PEOPLE was in 1980?



Finally, I'd argue that by the ‘film for our times’ standard so many critics want to apply to best picture worthiness, THE KING’S SPEECH is as relevant as THE SOCIAL NETWORK. After all, in addition to the timeless theme of the importance of finding one's voice and communicating effectively in the media age, doesn’t THE KING’S SPEECH also touch on the theme of a powerful nation at the precipice, facing another country at war, and trying to find the right words to voice its concern and assuredly move towards greater involvement? Isn’t that what the United States is experiencing at this very moment with the upheaval in Egypt? How much more timely can a movie be?

3 comments:

  1. This interview between job search website Monster.com and Tom Hooper back up your position stating that the themes within THE KING’S SPEECH are just as currently relevant as THE SOCIAL NETWORK:
    http://www.monsterthinking.com/2010/12/02/kings-speech-leadership-lessons/

    * Themes of leadership, communication, and the impact of technology, whose lessons remain as relevant in politics (and business) today
    * No leader can ever do it alone, best results are achieved by reaching out and trusting in people, particularly those whose skills compliment shortcomings
    * Leaders who connect in an emotionally relevant way with the public, rather than being perceived as superhuman, are more effective
    * The emergence of the wireless radio completely changed the expectations and perceptions of the monarchy; today’s leaders are experiencing a similar revolution with social media.

    Tom Hooper: “What’s interesting now is the infatuation with perception has extended to everyone in America. With the coming of social media, many of us are deploying this kind of “second version” of ourselves through Facebook and Twitter, so this issue of how we broadcast ourselves and publically present ourselves has stopped being a leadership issue to really become a generational issue: how do we broadcast a version of ourselves?”

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  2. Thanks Fan With No Name! Love the links.

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  3. The Oscars are a joke. Hollywood is a shallow institution.

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